Last spring’s performance of professor Robert Denham’s oratorio Under The Shadow evoked emotional response and thoughtful discussions for audience members and performers alike, bringing Biola’s Year of the Arts to a spectacular close.
Written for two soloists, the Biola University Chorale and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Carl St. Clair, Under The Shadow premiered May 16 in Biola’s Lansing Recital Hall and was followed by a performance at the Village of Hope, a homeless shelter run by the Orange County Rescue Mission.
Denham was commissioned to write for the theme “Sacred Space,” but with all the places that have been disgraced by sin and destruction, he found himself wondering if any space could really be called sacred at all. He set to music a series of vignettes and replies highlighting five spaces where desecration has occurred, using texts that call to mind both the darkness of the Fall and the glory of God.
“I was praying that this would really have an impact, that it wouldn’t be about my career, that it would be affirming for the church,” Denham said. “There’s a lot of discouragement in the church, especially these days. I’ve seen church splits and I’ve seen heroes of the faith. ... I’ve seen them fall and kind of give up on Christianity, in fact. That’s very discouraging for me to see. It can make us wonder when our time is going to come when we fall away too. ... I wanted to address this and give a word of hope to the present-day church.”
Denham’s sacred spaces of choice included the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an African slave ship, the home, the temple and the “Heart of a People.” Each vignette, describing pain, abuse or the tarnished nature of the fallen world, was followed by a reply highlighting God’s role in seeing, redeeming and bringing together his people, so that the darkness of the heavy subjects was interspersed with hope.
“Robert Denham’s stirring music forces one to examine the full spectrum of music’s expression from bleak darkness to moments of extreme jubilation,” said St. Clair, conductor of the Pacific Symphony. “Throughout this hour-long musical journey one always senses optimism.”
During the oratorio, soloists carried the narrative, singing free verse, Scripture and historical anecdotes, while the choir sometimes chanted, sometimes sang in jubilation. The performance was enhanced by multimedia images assembled by Brian Petersen.
Soloist Tyler Thompson, a vocal instructor at Biola, called Under The Shadow “the single most meaningful event that I have been a part of in my three-fold career as a teacher, performer and worship leader. ... The church was gathered together to be moved by the Spirit towards a covenant renewal and declare his greatness in our midst.”
Noting that audience members lingered in the hall for nearly an hour after the performance, Denham said his piece seemed to have the encouraging effect he intended.
“The hall was packed to the gills, so we had to turn away a lot of patrons, which is a great problem to have,” Denham said.
To purchase a recording of Under the Shadow while copies last, visit biolabookstore.com.